The Gulen Movement Is Not a Cult — It’s One of the Most Encouraging Faces of Islam Today
Last week witnessed what may be the last act of an unfolding struggle between two major Islamic movements in Turkey. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused exiled Islamic leader Fethullah Gulen of plotting last week’s failed coup against the government. Immediately thereafter, Erdogan unleashed massive Stalin-style purges and arrests across the country of anyone suspected of any connection with Gulen or indeed of anyone of any ideology who opposes Erdogan.
First of all, when we talk about Islamic leaders in Turkey, we’re talking about a very different scene than in most of the rest of the Muslim world. In Turkey, it’s basically a struggle among Islamic moderates. Neither Erdogan nor Gulen call for any kind of Islamic State, Sharia law or Caliphate. They both operate fairly comfortably within a primarily secular state structure established a century ago by the country’s modernizing secularist founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. We’re not really talking about Islam or theology but about power and influence. Politics in Turkey has always been a rough game, even within a basically democratic order.
But there are important differences between the two groups. Erdogan runs a political party while Gulen operates a civil movement called Hizmet (“Service”). Erdogan comes out of a more traditional Sunni Turkish Islamist movement; Gulen comes out of an apolitical, more Sufi, mystical and social tradition. Gulen is interested in slow and deep social change, including secular higher education; Erdogan as a party leader is first and foremost interested in preserving his party’s power, operating in a populist manner, trying to raise the general welfare.
I believe it is unlikely that Gulen was the mastermind behind the dramatic failed coup attempt against Erdogan last week. Of course, in the absence of evidence, so far no one can speak with certainty. Gulen’s social movement probably has well over a million followers or sympathizers who are not under centralized control. With the arrests of tens of thousands this week and the use of torture already suspected, there is no telling what kind of “confessions” will be generated. Erdogan demands that the U.S. extradite Gulen (he lives in Pennsylvania) to Turkey, but Washington does not usually extradite political figures unless the evidence is highly persuasive in a U.S. court.
More importantly, Erdogan’s sensational and sweeping charges against Gulen seem to fly in the face of most logic. Consider the following:
Erdogan had already largely crushed Hizmet before the coup. He was enraged in 2013 at the publication — by Gulen followers — of police wiretap evidence of widespread corruption within Erdogan’s own circles. He undertook a massive and ongoing purge against Hizmet’s members, activists, supporters, officials, financial institutions, television stations, newspapers, educational and social institutions, especially within the police and judiciary. Hizmet institutions were devastated. Its members knew their base had been crippled and understood the need to regroup as a movement, perhaps working more closely with liberal and even secular forces to maintain democracy, to protect against a return of military power and to prevent Erdogan’s widening abuses of authority.
Gulen has always embraced the importance and dignity of the state, in the best Ottoman tradition. He has supported the state against earlier Islamist movements that raised Islam over the state. He even felt compelled to support the military takeover of the state in 1980 in order to preserve the state in the face of raging guerrilla warfare raging in the streets. Basically, however, he supports democracy over military rule as the surest guarantee for the freedom of Hizmet to exist and conduct its social mission.
Gulen immediately denounced last week’s coup as well. Was he merely dissembling? Unlikely, since it is consistent with Gulen’s discomfort with military rule over years. Furthermore, Hizmet does not engage in terrorist activities, so support for political violence in this case is extremely unlikely. Erdogan’s charge that Hizmet is a “terrorist organization” is absurd to anyone with the least knowledge of the movement, given its strong emphasis on peace and dialogue.
Gulen arguably lacked even the capability to organize a serious coup in an army that, over decades, has rigorously weeded Hizmet followers out — indeed, any officers showing any religious beliefs. Turkish intelligence has also been all over the movement for years, amassing massive dossiers. Why would Gulen choose to attempt a coup that’s contrary to all his views and at a time of maximum weakness vis-a-vis Erdogan?
The coup leaders called themselves the Peace at Home Committee. “Peace at home” (yurtta sulh) is part of a famous slogan of Ataturk’s and not associated with Gulen.
It beggars the imagination to believe that the now tens of thousands of people purged and arrested — police, army, judges, lawyers, teachers, bankers, journalists — are all terrorist enemies of the state. Clearly Erdogan is seizing the occasion to eliminate any and all opposition to his plans to create a new super-powerful presidency for himself. Erdogan will find many, even within his own party, who are dismayed at his reach for total power — but are cowed into silence. Once objective journalists now watch their words.
In the interest of full disclosure — it is on public record that I wrote a letter as a private citizen in connection with Gulen’s U.S. green card application in 2006, stating that I did not believe that Gulen constituted a security threat to the U.S. This came shortly after I had finished a book, The Future of Political Islam, that involved extensive travel and interviews with Islamists around the world. In that context, I found Hizmet to be remarkably moderate, tolerant, non-violent, open to dialogue, a social rather than political movement, and a strong proponent of education as the means to empower Muslims in a globalizing future.
But in the years of Bush’s global war on terrorism, many neoconservatives in Washington were agitating to deport Gulen — among many hundreds of other Muslim clerics — as a security risk to the U.S. I found the charge baseless. Indeed, I still believe that Hizmet as a movement represents one of the most encouraging faces of contemporary Islam in the world.
I wanted the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation to at least be aware of my considered personal opinion as they considered his case. Since then, enemies of Gulen and many conspiratorial-minded Turks decided to connect the dots: the fact that I was a U.S. Central Intelligence Agency official (I had retired from the agency 18 years before) and that I had spoken out in defense of Gulen constituted clear “proof” that Gulen is a CIA agent.
Gulen’s movement is hardly without its faults. He is an old-school figure, 75 years old, reclusive and often not in touch with daily aspects of the organization. Hizmet has not been a transparent organization — hence it’s viewed as “shadowy.” But in past decades, when membership in Hizmet (or any Islamic movement in Turkey) constituted grounds for possible prosecution, its members kept a low profile, often hiding their affiliation.
That changed after Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (known as the AKP) came to power in 2002. Many members of Hizmet then became free to seek positions in government (if qualified). In particular, they sought jobs in the police and judiciary, to a large measure to ensure that police powers would never be wielded against them (or the AKP) again, as in the past. The tide has now turned, and the full powers of the Erdogan-controlled police are being used against Hizmet members. Sadly, the police have regularly been a political football in Turkish politics over the years.
But in the end, this is not just politics. We are talking about a critical issue: what kind of movements will represent Islam’s future? ISIS? Al Qaeda? The Muslim Brotherhood? As Islamic movements go, I would rank Hizmet high on the list of rational, moderate, socially constructive and open-minded organizations. It is not a cult; it sits squarely in mainstream modernizing Islam.
Erdogan’s own AKP had once been a remarkable model. Indeed, if Erdogan had retired from politics in 2011 with all the party’s accomplishments, he would certainly go down in history as the greatest prime minister in the history of democratic Turkey. But, as with so many leaders, after a decade in power, corruption sets in, leaders lose their touch and grow isolated and power-hungry. Erdogan is now in the process of destroying virtually everything his party created in the first decade of governance. His sweeping purges and the pall of fear and uncertainty is destroying Turkey itself.
How will it end? Erdogan has beaten Hizmet decisively. But he is planting the seeds for his own destruction. How and when he will fall remains unclear. Meanwhile, on the international scene, Turkey is rapidly becoming a pariah. The country itself is now his primary victim.
Graham E. Fuller
Former vice chairman, CIA’s National Intelligence Council; Author “Breaking Faith”
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